It’s often hard to know when an era begins and ends, but the recent deaths of the novelist Toni Morrison (in August) and the literary scholar Harold Bloom (on Monday) make a case for putting the era of literary canon wars to rest.
In the early 1990s, Mr. Bloom and Ms. Morrison stood on opposite sides of a cultural debate about what to read in college and, more broadly, about how to read. Mr. Bloom defended education as a process of intense personal engagement with great works, envisioned as a way to “enlarge a solitary existence.” He viewed the traditional Western canon as the time-tested subject of that engagement and even produced a list to clarify which literary works he considered part of it.
Ms. Morrison viewed literary canons as the contingent products of history and associated forms of domination and erasure, not as the timeless embodiments of universal human experiences or values. She championed writing, scholarship and teaching as a process of reclaiming that historical complexity. Her priorities, which were shared by a generation of scholars pursuing race-, gender- and cultural studies-based approaches in the humanities, led toward a diversification of the canon.
The “culture wars” of the next few decades owed much to these two positions. Both camps became preoccupied with what texts were being assigned in classrooms. The college syllabus became a contested document, suddenly capable of holding Western civilization to its ideals or hastening its decline.
The truth, however, is that no one knew what was actually being assigned and taught — at least not in any comprehensive empirical sense. Critics relied on impressions and anecdotes, worrying about classes devoted to the study of Michael Jackson or Danielle Steel, or courses that served up only “dead white men.”
But now we do know what is being taught. Over the past few years, our team at the Open Syllabus Project has collected and analyzed more than six million syllabuses from university websites. We can see not only what is being assigned, but also how choices about what to teach have evolved, at a scale that was impossible to imagine when these questions were first litigated.
So who won the canon wars: Mr. Bloom’s traditionalists or Ms. Morrison’s new guard? In important respects, they both did.
Mr. Bloom’s Western tradition largely retains its hold on the curriculum. This is clear in the rankings of the most frequently assigned literary works in English over the past five years. Nearly all could have been drawn from syllabuses from 40 years ago: novels by Jonathan Swift, Mary Shelley, Mark Twain, Joseph Conrad, Herman Melville and F. Scott Fitzgerald; poetry by Homer, John Milton, Robert Browning, Walt Whitman and T.S. Eliot; essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederick Douglass and Virginia Woolf; stories by Geoffrey Chaucer, Edgar Allan Poe, Franz Kafka, William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. Multiple plays by William Shakespeare. And so on.
On the other hand, the approaches to scholarship and teaching favored by Ms. Morrison unmistakably opened the canon to new agendas and values. The top ranks of assigned works now include older titles recovered from obscurity and modern ones that have achieved something like canonical status: works by Alice Walker, Tim O’Brien, Chinua Achebe, Joyce Carol Oates and — of course — Ms. Morrison herself. (Mr. Bloom might well have approved: He included writings by Ms. Morrison, Ms. Oates and Mr. Achebe in his personal canon.)
The range of materials taught in literature courses today is almost certainly much broader than it was during Mr. Bloom’s golden age of literary education. But the continuities in what is taught far outweigh the changes.
At the same time, you could argue that Ms. Morrison and Mr. Bloom both lost the canon wars. The evolution of the curriculum over several decades has not prevented a sharp decline in humanities enrollment. It is hard to attribute this to particular curricular trends. It is perhaps easier to see how the loss of the privileged place accorded to literary expression in society translates into different decisions by students about what to study.
Mr. Bloom bemoaned this decline. We could, however, see it more optimistically as part of a larger expansion of ways to interpret the world, passing through other fields and forms of expression. Some of these fields, especially when quantitative or computational in method, are distant from literary and historical forms of inquiry, at least in their origins. But connections among these fields are everywhere, and we are only just beginning to understand them.
Such transformations in our forms of knowledge deserve passionate debate. Despite the differences between Mr. Bloom and Ms. Morrison, that kind of commitment to putting pressure on ideas and traditions is part of the legacy they left us.
Joe Karaganis (@jjkaraganis) is the director of Open Syllabus, a nonprofit research organization, where David McClure (@clured) is the chief technologist.
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